Amrita Sher-Gil: The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman
Museums can be confusing spaces. Suddenly, you find yourself in the minds of several artists, perhaps witnessing their dreams or their nightmares or simply scenes from another time.
The National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi is one such space. One winter afternoon I visited the museum in search of Amrita Sher-Gil’s works. I had developed a wispy fascination with her art and desired to see more.
The museum houses over a hundred paintings by Sher-Gil, who has been variously described as one of India’s greatest avant-garde artists, India’s Frida Kahlo, and an artist who helped shape modern Indian sensibility in the decades following independence.
The Amrita you meet at the museum is all of those things and more.
To me, Sher-Gil spoke as a young woman (she died at the age of 28, leaving behind a large collection of works) who was encountering and exploring her divided world (more on that below).
Here’s looking at what made her, her.
Paintings from Teenage Years: Amrita’s Budapest
According to a popular anecdote, as a child, Amrita was expelled from her convent school because she had declared herself an atheist.
Growing up in Budapest, Hungary, Amrita began to draw and paint at a young age, receiving formal art lessons at 8 years of age. Her art from the early 1920s — when she was a pre-teen — is collected in an exhibition titled Amrita Sher-Gil: Portraits and Reveries.
Done mostly in pencil, graphite, and charcoal, with sparing use of water colours, these works present a picture of her life in Budapest.
A few of these paintings have buildings as their subject (for instance, in the picture above, the painting in the centre is titled ‘Hungarian Steeple Church’). Mostly, however, Amrita painted figures – especially women.
Paintings from Adult Years: Inside/Outside
A divided identity and the feeling of being both an insider and an outsider might seem rather been-there-felt-that to our metropolitan sensibilities, but for Sher-Gil, it meant a continuous clash between her European inclinations and desire to connect with her Indian roots.
Her later works — oil on canvas, with bright colours and deep shadows — reflected this conflict. In 1937, she toured South India. The visit gave birth to the South Indian trilogy of paintings: ‘Bride’s Toilet’, ‘Brahmacharis’, and ‘South Indian Villagers Going to a Market’.
Contrasted with her earlier works, these paintings depicted a conscious attempt on the part of the artist to move away from her European training and embrace Indian art styles.
Sometime in the 1930s, Sher-Gil wrote, “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque and many others. India belongs only to me.”
Sher-Gil’s discovery of her sense of self coincided with India’s discovery of itself as an independent nation. Her art, most of which gained recognition posthumously in the years following India’s independence, was crucial to the idea of ‘modern India’.
An Artist With a ‘Divided Sense of Self’
Sher-Gil’s obsession with figures, especially that of women, remained a constant throughout her career as an artist. Her self-portraits form a significant corpus of her work.
Critics have pointed out narcissistic tendencies in her art.
In an article for Outlook Magazine, Khushwant Singh, for instance, said that “Amrita was not as beautiful as she fancied herself and depicted in her self-portraits.”
As an artist dealing with a divided sense of self – not only in terms of her national identity but also in terms of her sexuality – this focus on the self, its many moods, and the body is perhaps not surprising.
Sher-Gil’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Tahitian’ (above left) is a good example of her exploration of the body and the self caught in complicated coordinates of nationality and sexuality.
Sher-Gil, a Hungarian-Indian, presented herself as a Tahitian while responding to an nude-art style popularised by the French artist Paul Gauguin typically used to draw the colonial and gendered ‘other’.
Another one of her paintings ‘Two Women’ is thought to be a painting of herself and her lover Marie Louise.
Sher-Gil, therefore, reinvented her visual language continuously to reconcile the many aspects of her identity.
In the end, however, her paintings, especially her portraits of herself as a young woman, reflected how identity was nothing if not fluid.